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The Louisiana State Penitentiary, previously a plantation, is currently the largest maximum-security prison in the United States. It has long been known as Angola, after the country from which many of the plantation’s slaves first came. Now, over three-quarters of this prison’s population is African-American. New Orleans-based husband-and-wife activists and photographers, Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, have spent decades at Angola, documenting the harrowing existence of these inmates. Slavery, The Prison Industrial Complex, on view at Art + Practice in Leimert Park, surveys their work.
The left wall in the first of two rooms includes two of the less explicit, but equally powerful images, taken 22 years apart. In the first—taken by Calhoun in 1982—two black boys hold hands and walk past a handwritten sign that reads, “SEE YOUR LOVE [sic] ONES PENITENTIARY ANGOLA RIDES CALL ANY TIME 277-8425.” The photo is poignantly titled Our children endangered, the new prey for prison beds, New Orleans. Then, there is a handsome, contemplative man with wrinkled skin in a pressed shirt—with his (nick)name written on the left portion of the chest—holding his heart and leaning against a tree; this one was taken by McCormick and is titled Daddy’o, the oldest inmate in Angola State Penitentiary (2004). The couple has a generous knack for capturing vulnerable moments, and it is shots such as these that perhaps best exemplify this ability and tendency. Sometimes, it is the quieter moments when suffering can truly be seen and compassion can fully be commanded.
And it’s not just Calhoun and McCormick’s cropping or composition of these subjects that suggests empathy over exploitation; it is also their unending curiosity and unwavering commitment. Their care comes through in the details, and the impact comes from learned and shared truths. One of the most haunting pictures featured here is Calhoun’s Who’s that man on that horse, I don’t know his name, but they all call him boss (1980); it hangs opposite the entrance and depicts a rough-riding, rifle-toting warden, looking out towards a field filled with black workers. The 13th Amendment, allegedly meant to formally abolish slavery, was passed 100 years prior. Yet, in this photo—snapped at the outset of Reagan’s presidency—slavery appears to be alive and well. Today, with newly-inflamed white supremacy and African Americans disproportionately affected by voter suppression, we’ve clearly not made it far enough.
Slavery, The Prison Industrial Complex runs from September 22, 2018–January 5, 2019 at Art + Practice (3401 W. 43rd Place, Los Angeles, CA 90008).